Healthy Living & Graceful Aging for Your Pets
YOUR ROLE IN YOUR PET’S HEALTH
By Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya
A lot of people don’t like to think or talk about getting old ‑ for themselves or their pets. Like it or not, from the time you’re born, you start to age. Life is aging. Death will happen. It is how slowly and gracefully you get there that really matters. Healthy living and graceful aging is about maximizing the quantity and quality of our pets’ lives. There are no guarantees. We are just trying to stack things as much in our favor as possible. Discussing how we can achieve healthy living and graceful aging has become central to how I manage my patients.
Enjoying What Each Day Has to Offer
Animal companions can teach us so much about enjoying the simple things in life. Imagine yourself and your pet in a few of the following scenarios: going for a walk, chasing a ball, taking a ride, sharing the couch, eating, reading the paper, tromping across the keyboard, coming home, shopping for toys, scratching, petting, preening, napping, playing, sharing, sniffing, staring into each other’s eyes with unabashed love. Like humans, each animal is an individual with a unique blueprint of personality, temperament, talents, likes, and dislikes. Part of the joy of having a pet is discovering and nurturing the special features of that individual, creating an environment where that unique being can thrive, and appreciating how lucky you are to have your life enhanced by him or her.
If you have multiple pets, your relationship with each one will be unique. This makes each pet experience all the more precious. It is normal that you may connect more easily or more intensely with one than another. The important part is understanding and respecting each individual.
The flip side to enjoying the things that make your pet special is recognizing his or her particular needs and accommodating them. If your companion is an athletic, high-energy dog, for example, he or she is going to be much more manageable indoors if you take him or her outside to chase a ball for an hour every day. If your cat is shy and timid, she or he won’t want to be dressed up and displayed in cat shows. You cannot expect a macaw or a cockatoo to be quiet and still all the time ‹ they are by nature loud, emotional, demonstrative creatures, and it is not their fault that your apartment doesn’t absorb sound as well as a rain forest.
If you adopt a pet when you are in between jobs and home all the time, accepting a position that has you gone for long hours and traveling a lot can mean a difficult transition for any pet. Admittedly, it is difficult to predict what life will deal us, but like most humans, animals prefer some degree of stability in their lives. Part of responsible guardianship is being there for your pet and being fair to your pet.
Education and Good Manners
We are all subject to various societal laws that define and enforce a minimum code of behavior; we might also abide by certain principles and ethics suggested by our religion, culture, or family. These rules allow humans to share home, community, country, and planet. If you take pet guardianship seriously, you might be committing fifteen or more years to a dog, twenty or more years to a cat, thirty years to a cockatiel, or seventy years to a parrot. You need to teach your pet the rules. The goal of pet education is to shape behavior so that your long-term relationship is a joy and not a burden. A proper education will also allow you and your animal companion to be safe and spend more time doing fun things together.
All my dog friends, for example, learn how to walk nicely on a leash. It is unpleasant and unsafe when an overexcited dog tries to chase an ambulance or dart in front of traffic to get to a squirrel on the other side of the road. All of my flighted parakeet friends can be easily ³herded² back to their cage when something is happening that might startle or endanger them. Even cats, reputed to have minds of their own, can be encouraged to accept a few rules, such as not attacking their housemates or redesigning all of the furniture. Once you define your ³house rules,² you must figure out a way to communicate them effectively to your pet. Sometimes it happens naturally. Your pet does something undesirable, you glare at your pet, he or she gives you a remorseful look, and it never happens again. At other times, when you and your pet are having a communication breakdown, trainers and behaviorists can be valuable resources. Even though I am a veterinarian, I have many times called my dog trainer for insights about my dog’s behavior and for advice on what to do about it. I have similarly consulted with bird behaviorists and other behavior specialists for insights into other species. Some pets will really challenge us about a chosen rule. At times, we must pick our battles and do our best.
One thing I have learned is that there are as many ways of training an animal as there are of educating a child. There are training styles that incorporate discipline or negative reinforcement and those that use only positive reinforcement; there’s the dominance approach and the bribery approach; and there are food motivators, clickers, gentle leaders, pinch collars, citronella collars, scat mats, spray bottles, noisemakers, whistles, and many other training devices to choose from. Some animals, like some children, figure out the rules no matter how they are presented. Some animals respond only to one approach and not at all to others. Equally important, if you are uncomfortable with a style, it will not work.
For example, when I was teaching my dog to sit, one trainer taught me to give the command ³sit² as I held my dog’s collar in one hand and pushed on his rump with the other, then to praise and reward him once he was in the correct position. Another trainer believed this method was too imposing. Her method was to use a piece of food to motivate the dog to look up; eventually the dog would end up in the sit position because it is more comfortable to sit than to stand when you’re a dog with your nose way up in the air. At this point, the trainer would praise the dog and offer the reward. The latter method is certainly gentler and works great for some dogs, but not for others. When offered food, some dogs will sit and then stand a half second later, or they never sit, or they jump up and leap for the treat, or they sit and bark and then think that they are being rewarded for staring at food and barking rather than sitting. Then again, the hold the collar and push on the rump method that worked for my dog will make some dogs startle and turn or spin as soon as they feel your hand on their body, while some animals drop their entire bodies to the ground, and some drop and roll over. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, and for different pets.
There are many trainers out there to choose from. When selecting a trainer, request an interview and ask questions. Visit the school if there is one and observe its methods and results. To me, a good trainer is one who does the following:
Knows several ways to teach a rule.
Understands your animal’s temperament.
Understands what is motivating undesirable behaviors.
Appreciates your preferences.
Chooses the style that best fits you and your animal companion.
Continually reevaluates and makes customized adjustments throughout the training process.
I advocate teaching all pets at least a few minimal ³house rules,² but some pets thrive on advanced education. Discovering and developing your pet’s talents can enhance the bond between you. When you train together, you and your animal companion learn to function as a team.
Diet and Exercise
When it comes to your pet’s health, diet and exercise are the two easiest things to control, and they can have a significant impact. There are many overweight pets in America, and excess weight increases health problems, speeds up aging, and shortens lives. Most diabetic cats are obese. Most dogs that require back surgery are obese. Obese Amazon parrots are about as likely to have high cholesterol and to suffer strokes and heart attacks in their middle ages as comparably weighted humans. If your pet has an underlying predisposition toward heart or respiratory disease, obesity will certainly exacerbate the condition. Obesity will cause arthritis to develop sooner and progress more rapidly. Obesity complicates recovery from anesthesia and surgery.
Of course, lean patients can also develop these problems. As I’ve said, there are no guarantees: we can just try to improve our odds. Dachshunds and corgis and other dogs with short legs and long backs, for example, are structurally predisposed to back problems. (Don’t think I’m picking on dwarf breeds. I love these dogs. I live with one.) You can decrease the odds of having a problem by keeping them lean and fit, keeping their nails trimmed so they have traction, and building ramps in place of stairs wherever possible. Even with all of these preventives, your pet could still develop a back problem, but hopefully one that will respond to rest and medical management rather than one that will force you to decide whether or not to pursue an emergency CT or MRI and surgery on a Sunday afternoon or render your canine companion permanently paralyzed and incontinent. Healthy living not only helps to minimize the incidence and severity of problems, it also improves the likelihood of recovery, and shortens the duration of healing.
There is no health risk to being lean. Ideal body weight is dependent on individual bone structure and conformation. A scale can be helpful, but you don’t need one to determine whether or not your pet is the ideal body weight. You can assess the situation based on look and feel. For dogs and cats, when you look at your standing pet from above, he or she should have a slight hourglass figure between shoulders and hips. Bulges in the middle are unnecessary weight that slows down your naturally agile pet.
Bird body conformation can also be assessed by feel, though it is a little trickier than with mammals. Birds have a keel bone down the middle of their chest. There are muscles on each side of the keel bone. You should be able to feel your bird’s keel bone at the same level as the muscles, or just slightly protruding. Your veterinarian can help you figure out your bird’s body conformation. If your bird is overweight, it might be helpful to purchase a digital gram scale so that you can monitor changes from day to day.
Obesity in pets saddens me because it is so easily remedied by balancing caloric intake and energy output. The daily quantity of food recommended on the back of a pet food bag is just that, a recommendation. In my experience, many adult pets require less than the “recommended” volume of kibble. The recommendations do not factor in the treats that your pet gets in between meals. Dog biscuits can be a deceptively dense calorie source. A four-inch-long bone-shaped cookie can weigh as much as a half cup of kibble and contain an equal number of calories. Rawhide is not calorie-free. Neither are pig ears or snouts or any other livestock body part that is smoked and marketed as a snack. All of the snacks that your pet is getting need to be included in calculating his or her total caloric intake.
Given the opportunity, most pets will consume more calories than they require. After all, one of the goals of pet food companies is to make the food irresistible. And people love to indulge their pets. When clients say to me, “But Comet seems so hungry,” what they really mean is that Comet seems so happy when they offer food, and it makes them happy when Comet is happy. But if Comet is getting heavier every year, you are not really doing him justice in the long run. Always keep in mind that you do not have to compromise your own or Comet’s happiness in order to maintain an optimum body weight.
If your pet is overweight, here are some of the suggestions I usually give, not necessarily in the order that you should try them. My basic premise is to adjust the volume of calories that your animal companion consumes each day without changing his or her routine. A few cautions: First, if your pet has been placed on a special diet for any reason, check with your veterinarian before making any additions or changes to what you are offering. Second, if your pet is consuming fewer calories than seems reasonable and still has a weight problem, check with your veterinarian. Third, never subject a pet to a starvation diet. If your pet needs to lose weight, it should do so gradually. An obese patient that does not eat for several days can develop a potentially life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis. And finally, water has no calories and should not be restricted to control weight.
1. Get a measuring cup. Most people don’t know exactly how much their pet is consuming each day. Measuring cups are cheap. Just keep one in the food bin.
Measure how much your pet is being offered. Maybe this amount is actually more than you thought.
2. Get lower calorie food. There is no shame in doing so. It means that your pet is more fuel efficient, like a subcompact car ‹ lucky you! Less active formulas have the same balance of nutrients with fewer calories. Also, get smaller treats. Your pet is less likely to notice a decrease in the size of his or her treats than a decrease in the number of treats per day. Birds can be dieted in the same way, and oftentimes simply eliminating the high fat foods will do it. Seeds and nuts are not essential food items to parrots. They are fun to eat and tasty, and this is why many birds prefer them over other food items that are more nutritious but less fattening.
3. Decrease the volume of kibble per serving. Whether you offer your dog one cup of kibble or two-thirds of a cup of kibble, it’s going to be gone in thirty seconds anyway. Do not change the number of feedings: doing so will be noticed.
4. Add fillers. If your pet really objects to the decrease in kibble volume and gives you that look, replace the volume with carrots, pumpkin, or green beans. These can be fresh or canned, raw or steamed, or whole, chopped, or shredded. Be warned that fillers increase poop volume. If your pet picks the kibble out from between the fillers, well, that’s his or her choice; it suggests that your pet is not really starving. Raw carrots crunch much like dog cookies, and they are acceptable low-calorie replacements for many pets.
5. Add water to kibble. This will expand the volume of the kibble ‑ filling up more space in your pet’s tummy.
6. Exercise. You can eat more if you burn more calories. Exercise will also build muscle mass and increase cardiovascular strength. It might also become a means for you and your animal companion to spend more quality time together. When it is a frigid winter day in New England, my dog is so happy to be out running through the snow that I bundle my tropic-born body into layers of clothing just to share in his joy. In the summer, we swim. In the spring and the fall, we go for walks in the woods. Most neighborhoods have loosely organized doggie playgroups that meet early in the morning before people go to work. Doggie day care programs have evolved in some places. Some people prefer more organized activities like agility, herding, search and rescue, or field trials. It doesn’t matter whether your dog actually competes in these activities or not, as long you are having fun together. Some cats will chase a flashlight or motorized mouse. Birds can also be exercised. Depending on the size of your bird and your lifestyle, some birds can remain flighted. Flying is amazing and burns lots of calories. For other birds, being fully flighted comes with significant risks and is not an option. Wing flapping, walking, running, and dancing exercises can be great forms of aerobic activity and entertainment for both you and your feathered friend. Be creative.
7. Make regular time to tell your animal companion how special he or she is. Food should not be a substitute for love.
Being familiar with your pet’s physique and idiosyncrasies is an important part of a preventive health care plan. Consider your pet named Ginger. What do Ginger’s eyes look like? Are they clear? Is there any redness? Do they tear? What does it look and smell like under those floppy ears? What color are her gums? How do her upper and lower teeth meet? Are her teeth securely rooted, clean, and white? How far around her muzzle does her tongue reach? Does Ginger drool? What is her body conformation? How does she carry her head? How far back can it reach? How far to each side? Is her chest broad or narrow? How does her belly hang? Does her back arch or sag? How does Ginger move? Notice the coordination of all four limbs and the motions of each step. Watch her curl herself into a ball and notice how much each joint flexes. Watch her stretch and notice how far each limb can extend. Feel her coat. Notice her skin. Are there areas with more and less fur (or feathers)? Are there areas with more pigment and less pigment? Noticing what is normal for your pet makes you more astute in recognizing when things are not normal.
Equally important, remember that for Ginger, actions don’t speak louder than words; actions are her words. Pay attention to her behavior and habits. Does Ginger prefer cool weather or warm weather? Is she a morning creature, an evening creature, or an anytime creature? Is she food motivated or food indifferent? Is she an athlete or a couch potato? What is the normal color and consistency of her bowel movements and urine? What is her normal energy level? When it comes to discomfort, is she stoic or sensitive? Does she react indifferently or dramatically to change? Is she sensitive or indifferent to your mood swings? Knowing what is normal for your animal companion allows you to determine earlier on when something is amiss, which allows in turn for earlier diagnosis and treatment, less progression of the problem, and general better living for your pet.
By grooming, I don’t mean the poofy doos of the show dog world. If those aesthetics make you and your pet feel special, then great, but I am more concerned with the grooming that contributes to the health and longevity of your pet ‑ mainly teeth and toenails.
It is a myth that if pets consume only dry food, they will not develop dental disease. More and more pets are now living long enough that they develop severe dental problems, and not just in terms of bad breath and cavities. Dental tartar starts off as that slimy substance called plaque that you feel on the surface of your teeth when you wake up in the morning. Crunching on hard food (if your pet doesn’t just swallow his or her food whole) will remove some of it, but a certain amount of that plaque will still cling to the teeth, especially along the gum line on the cheek-side surfaces of the upper teeth. Over time, that plaque will mineralize and harden into tartar. Millions of bacteria get trapped in the space between the tartar and the gums.
Several outcomes are possible. Cavities can develop. If the cavity penetrates into the central root canal of the tooth and bacteria enter the canal, a root abscess can occur. Some patients demonstrate discomfort at this point. Others demonstrate an amazing tolerance for dental conditions ‑ they don’t miss a meal even as teeth abscess, rot, and fall out. As a result, dental disease may not be perceived as a problem. However, complications can develop, usually when the patient is older and has other health issues. Sometimes tooth abscesses extend beyond the tooth and form draining tracts to the nasal cavity or the side of the face. Of greater concern, the bacteria trapped between the tartar and the gums can seed infections to other parts of the body. Heart valves and kidneys are known targets.
Numerous commercial products are marketed to help with your pet’s dental hygiene, though success varies for each individual pet. Some dogs will spend hours gnawing on bones or chewing toys, while others can’t be bothered with these objects; certainly, having them lie around the house does not prevent dental disease. As a veterinarian, my greatest concern is the individuals who chew so aggressively that they fracture their teeth or swallow large pieces that necessitate surgical retrieval. Even the chews labeled as 100 percent digestible may not pass through the intestinal tract without causing significant discomfort and irritation if ingested whole or in large pieces. I have extracted teeth that were fractured on hard beef bones, induced vomiting in dogs who have ingested so much rawhide in one sitting as to be visibly distended, and performed emergency surgery to retrieve pieces of hard rubber toys that were causing an intestinal obstruction. Because of these experiences, I strongly advise supervision when introducing something new to your pet. If it starts to look like a disaster waiting to happen, throw it away and try something else.
By increasing the size and hardness of the kibble, some diets are designed to clean teeth as your pet chews. However, if your dog or cat does not chew his or her food (that is, you do not hear any crunching during mealtimes), then these diets will not help your pet’s teeth at all. Even if your pet chews once or twice, it may not be enough to get the full benefit intended by the diet.
Pet toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental wipes, and mouthwashes are also available and can be helpful for some individuals. Be warned that if your pet bites down on the toothbrush, a wicked tug-of-war game can ensue. Pet toothpaste was helpful in introducing the concept of teeth cleaning to my dog, but when he became so enthusiastic about the toothpaste that it was a battle to get past his eager licking tongue, we had to abandon it for unflavored wipes.
To me, there is no substitute for just wiping the slimy plaque off the surface of your pet’s teeth with a hand towel. It might take a little effort to get your pet used to the idea and the routine, but it is worth trying. More pets than you might imagine will tolerate this process, which takes just a few seconds. Because plaque most commonly accumulates on the cheek-side surfaces of the upper teeth, your pet does not need to open his or her mouth in order for you to keep these critical surfaces clean. In fact, it is better if your pet keeps its jaws closed during cleanings so that you cannot get bitten, even accidentally. The technique starts with desensitizing your pet to having fingers in his or her face and lips, and then gradually progressing toward teeth wiping. Some pets will progress through the stages in a few weeks; others will take longer. Be patient. If your pet demonstrates anxiety or fear, stop immediately. Clean teeth contribute to healthy living, but not if the process causes excessive stress to you or your pet.
Toenail trimming is another grooming activity that often gets overlooked in caring for pets. When toenails get too long, they interfere with ambulation. Dogs and cats are supposed to stand and walk on their toe pads. When toenails get too long, the angle of the toes and feet is shifted, and nails rather than pads touch the floor. Or sometimes the nails will curve and grow into the pad, resulting in painful sores. This latter problem is most common in older cats that no longer scratch and wear their claws down independently. The altered conformation, decreased traction, and/or sore toes can lead to slipping and falling, sprains and bruises, and more serious orthopedic injuries.
Like teeth cleaning, toenail trimming should never be a traumatic event for you or your pet. Start by getting your pet used to having his or her feet touched. Gradually progress to picking them up one at a time, feeling in between toes, and touching each toenail. Don’t forget to pet the rest of the animal at the same time; there is no point in arousing suspicions. Whether you, a groomer, or a veterinarian does the actual toenail trimming, this exercise will still make it easier and less stressful for your pet.
Humans approach life and the need to care for themselves in a myriad of ways, and we can extend that creativity to our animal companions. Through careful observation and flexible solutions, I try to make healthy living and graceful aging minimally imposing and maximally rewarding for my animal companions. There are no guarantees, but we do our best and hope that we will be blessed with many healthy years together.
Excerpted from Kindred Spirit, Kindred Care by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya . Copyright © 2005 by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya . All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $13.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.972.6657 ext 52 or click here.